I’ve seen several movies begin with a car chase. “John Wick: Chapter Two” is the only movie I’ve seen begin with a car fight.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is the former contract killer who sought revenge on the criminals who killed his puppy and stole his car in 2014’s sleeper hit. He ended that film with a new dog; as the sequel opens, he’s returning for the car.
As a mob boss (Peter Stormare) panics about Wick’s impending return, the title character stalks through a warehouse like a slasher, taking out bad guys before finding his car. He gets in, revs up the engine and the vehicular mayhem that follows — in which Wick uses his car as a battering ram against other vehicles and humans —would make even Dominic Torretto think twice about getting behind the wheel.
To paraphrase the first film, Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.
“John Wick” was a breath of fresh, gun powder-scented air at a time when superheroes and shaky cams dominated action cinema (three years later, not too much has changed). Reeves, who’s shown a knack for slipping into iconic action roles, delivered a strong performance as the grief-stricken hit man who was short on words but big on style. Helmed by stunt veterans Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, it favored fast, brutal beat downs and close-range gunfights to queasy chases and quick edits. Its hero wore a suit instead of a mask and throw-downs took place in sleek clubs and posh hotels, giving it an elegance often missing in action franchises. The film was a cool, slick piece of work featuring a hero fueled by vengeance.
In “John Wick Chapter Two,” which picks up shortly after the first film, the dog stays safe, but otherwise it’s business as usual. After recovering his car, Wick attempts to get back to retirement, only to be pulled back in by a blood oath he swore to a gangster (Riccardo Scamarcio) years earlier. The job leads Wick to Rome to assassinate an up-and-coming crime lord and eventually pits him against a cadre of international assassins. Of course, all of this is just an excuse to hang elaborate action sequences on, which are delivered by Stahelski (Leitch sat this one out) with so much ferociousness that I felt compelled to check for bruises when it was over.
Granted, in 2017, the idea of a cold-blooded killer stalking through nightclubs and public venues shooting people in the face seems a bit distasteful. But the appeal of the “John Wick” films is that they take place in a world of fantasy. Here, there are no innocent bystanders; everyone is either a killer or a crime lord. In fact, by the film’s final act, as a worldwide contract is put out on Wick, it appears that there might be more assassins in the world than people to killed. Hit men and women attack in airports and on the street; in the film’s most entertaining sequence, Wick and an adversary (Common) use their noise-suppressed weapons to take sly shots at each other as they move through a crowded theater lobby, sniping at each other with the same nonchalance as two kids with pea shooters.
It would all be silly were it not for “John Wick’s” skilled world-building. “Chapter Two” expands Wick’s world, with much of the action occurring inside and around The Continental, a hotel with locations in New York and Rome where killers can rest and equip themselves assured a respite from the carnage (this rule is broken several times). This mythology, with its gold coins and a hotel with a storied history, was one of the highlights of the first film and the sequel expands it without becoming bogged down in exposition. We meet the Tailor, who outfits John in stylish (and tactical) duds, and the Sommelier, who provides Wick with his weaponry. All of this is overseen by Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental who goes to extreme measures to see to his guests’ safety. Wick also pays a visit to the mysterious Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who commands an army of indigents below the streets of New York and holds his allegiances loosely. Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad trust the audience to understand the rules without too much hand-holding, keeping the film light while also creating a lived-in world.
Stahelski and Reeves understand that the appeal of the best action movies is never from death or destruction but, ironically, from beauty and grace. Even flicks chock-full of explosions and gunfights can be rendered dull if the action is incomprehensible and poorly edited. Here, every brawl is a masterpiece of carnage. Each opponent moves with their own special brutality, sometimes diving at Wick like sumo wrestlers; other times Wick barrels through corridors, quickly firing, reloading and dishing out kung fu. The fights are filmed in long takes and often in wide shots, created through intricate stunt work and staged with breathtaking physicality. Wick’s opponents have personality, from Ruby Rose as a mute assassin to Common’s work as a cold-blooded bodyguard out to settle a score. Stahelski stages each action sequence with brutality but also beauty and variety, setting them in neon-lit Roman catacombs, on the steps of ancient buildings and, in the film’s bone-crunching climax, a hall of mirrors. “John Wick: Chapter 2” looks nothing like any action movie I’ve seen, its carnage tinged with surreal beauty.
As Wick, Reeves appears to have found a role that uses his stoic features and gift for saying volumes with just a glare. He throws himself into the work; it’s apparent he’s participating in pretty much every stunt. But he also values silence, knowing not to launch into a monologue when a terse “yeah” will do finely. The actor’s somehow found his way through some of the most iconic action films of the past few decades, but it’s possible the John Wick franchise might be the pinnacle of his career.
Sure, the film goes on a bit too long, and Wick’s motivations aren’t as gripping as they were in the first film (audiences tend to want to see puppy-killers punished) The film skirts the edge of self-parody in places, to the point where I’m concerned a third chapter might tilt into silliness. But those are all reservations that crop up long after the credits rolled. During its run time, I doubt too many people will be nitpicking “John Wick: Chapter Two.” They’ll be too busy bracing for impact.